By Jo Piazza / current.com / @jopiazza
Editor's note: In recognition of LGBT Pride Month, welcome to "Campaigning Gay: Out and on the trail," current.com's five-part series profiling openly LGBT candidates for state and local office. Look for a new profile each day this week.
The fact that she is an out bisexual woman running for Congress in conservative Arizona hasn’t been a major issue in the race for Kyrsten Sinema.
In fact, when sexuality is mentioned the four-term state legislator running for the newly created 9th District seat gently brushes the topic away. She would much rather focus on issues and, apparently, so would her voters in Tempe.
"I am a bread-and-butter girl," Sinema told Current when we spoke to her for the first part of this special series profiling LGBT political candidates in honor of Pride Month.
"I think that the people who live in Congressional District 9 think about their jobs and their homes and their kids, not about who is dating who."
Watch Sinema discuss her candidacy on "The War Room"
And that has been true. Sinema’s sexuality has not become the issue of this race, as it often can when someone who is out and open about his or her sexuality chooses to run. Sinema is the only women who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives who is endorsed by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the advocacy and fundraising group that works to elect openly LGBT politicians.
If elected she would be the first openly bisexual member of Congress. Her political coming out was after a Republican colleague made insulting remarks about gays and lesbians on the floor in 2005. Sinema responded, "We’re simply people, like everyone else, who want and deserve respect." When reporters later asked what she meant she matter of factly told them, "Duh, I’m bisexual."
But in this race, the media and voters are focusing on her entire story when considering Sinema as a candidate, not just the slice of it that includes her sexual preference. The 35-year-old was raised by Republican parents in a Mormon home. When she was young, her family was firmly middle class. Then her dad lost his job and for two years the family was homeless. "We lived in an abandoned gas station, and sometimes we didn't have enough food," Sinema said. After two years, her stepfather got a job and they were able to get back on their feet, but she recalls always being a little bit poor. She received an academic scholarship and a full Pell grant to attend Brigham Young University. "I chose to become a social worker because I wanted to give back to kids and their families who struggled the way I did but didn’t have the opportunity to get over it," Sinema, who received a master's degree in social work from Arizona State University at 21, said.
She worked as a social worker in a public elementary school for eight years and attended law school. In 2003, she ran for the Arizona House and made it a goal to build consensus across the aisle. "It’s not the easiest place to serve," Sinema said of the Arizona state legislature, with its Republican super-majority. "Democrats have been in the minority for 20 years, so to get one piece of legislation passed was huge." That makes what she has accomplished pretty impressive. In 2006, she took the lead against Proposition 107, which helped to defeat the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, and in 2008, she chaired Protect America’s Freedom, the group that opposed Arizona’s anti-affirmative action stance. She has actively opposed conservative Gov. Jan Brewer’s anti-family and anti-immigrant policies. Sinema is known in the state for her core Democratic values, and after spending nearly a decade in state office, she said she had just had enough with her state getting short shrift at the national level.
"I looked at Congress, and they weren’t getting anything done," Sinema said. "We have a long history of statesmen who have served our state and put Arizona before party, and we have lost that. It's a shame because our state deserves better."
For the most part, Arizona is a state that likes women politicians. It has elected female governors from both major parties and also holds the record for having had the most female governors (four).
"I have been elected four times in Arizona, and I have been a woman each of those times," Sinema said. The candidate has the endorsement of EMILY’S List and last month Jezebel.com touted Sinema as one of four "kick-ass young women" who could possibly change the face of Congress.
Time magazine also named her one of America’s rising young political stars on their "40 Under 40" list. The accolades and support have come, no doubt, because of what she stands for rather than whom she stands next to.
"This race is less about my gender and sexuality," Sinema said, "and more about my voice and the voters having someone genuinely interested in them."
(Photo from Kyrsten Sinema)